FoodFrom Taiwan to Italy. How scallion pancakes might have inspired the birth of pizza

From Taiwan to Italy. How scallion pancakes might have inspired the birth of pizza

Taiwanese scallion pancake
Taiwanese scallion pancake
Images source: © Getty Images | © 2010 Jann Voo Photography

5:51 PM EST, January 1, 2024

This specialty is often known among Chinese as cong you bing and has been a staple in the cuisine since time immemorial, particularly in China's southeast regions. Many believe its recipe likely originated in Shanghai, a city with a rich history of immigrants from India. Fascinatingly, the scallion pancake resembles Indian naan, a detail not missed by researchers.

A captivating legend suggests the Chinese pancake served as the prototype for pizza. According to the story, the renowned explorer Marco Polo became fond of cong you bing while traversing the Great Wall. Upon his return to Italy, he implored a Neapolitan cook to recreate the dish. Inspired by the recipe, the cook added a few extra ingredients, including cheese, possibly resulting in the birth of pizza.

Yet, the scallion pancake remains a Far Eastern delicacy, highly regarded particularly in Taiwan, where it's consumed as a casual snack with various sauces or added to other dishes, notably soups. Its popularity extends to bustling night markets, attesting to its status as one of the top street food items.

Similar dishes are also featured in other Asian cuisines. In Korea, pancakes are commonly enhanced with small shrimp, chopped dill, or sesame seeds. However, the quintessential version consists of a green onion pie. So, how is it prepared?

Mastering Pancakes

The recipe for scallion pancakes is straightforward, but like any native pancake, success hinges on several crucial factors.

The critical ingredient is flour. Hard wheat flour should be avoided as it results in a brittle dough. Similarly, if prepared solely from cornflour, the dough will likely be tricky, and if made with buckwheat, it will tend towards a sour taste. The ideal option is simply wheat flour. If you wish, experiment by mixing it with other types at a 3:1 ratio, ensuring wheat flour constitutes the majority in the mix.

Achieving perfect pancakes on an old, worn-out grill is a challenge you'd instead not take on. The best approach is to use a pan specifically designed for pancakes, which warms up swiftly and has a flat surface.

The temperature distribution across the pan is essential. The entire surface needs to heat evenly to avoid uneven cooking—undercooked in one spot and burnt in another. An overly hot surface will cause the dough to harden excessively, while a too-cool one will result in the pancake sticking to the pan.

The type of fat used for frying is of great importance as well. Traditionally, a piece of lard was used, but clarified butter, canola, or coconut oil will also suffice. However, avoid sunflower oil as it doesn't enhance the flavor and can potentially lose its beneficial nutritional properties with high heat, potentially harming your health.

A Recipe for Scallion Pancakes

In a large bowl, combine flour (2 cups) with boiling water (<1 cup), mixing first with a spoon and then kneading by hand. Cover the dough tightly with cling film and set aside for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a different bowl, combine melted fat or vegetable oil, coconut, peanut, or canola oil (2 tablespoons) with wheat flour (2 tablespoons), spicy-citrus flavored Szechuan pepper (half a teaspoon), and salt (half a teaspoon). Mix well until smooth.

Uncover the dough and knead it by hand until it achieves a velvety texture. Apply oil over it and flatten it into a thin, rectangular shape. Spread the prepared paste across it and sprinkle with chopped green onions (half a cup).

Roll the dough from the shorter side into a snug cylinder and cut it into four equivalent portions. Flatten each one into pancake shapes and fry in hot oil on both sides until golden brown.

Before serving, let the pancakes rest on a metal grid for 1-2 minutes. They make a perfect warm snack on their own or as a side dish, perhaps served with a simple sauce made of chili oil, rice vinegar, and soy sauce.

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